Carolina opens its season this week by hosting the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that they've beaten only once in the regular season. The Panthers have never fared well against the NFC East. During the regular season, their combined record against East teams is 5-21. Against the Eagles they've gone 1-4. At the same time, John Fox is 14-9 in the month of September, and last year the Panthers were undefeated at home.
Philadelphia was a popular choice to go all the way this year, before training camps and the presesason gave everyone a look at teams around the league. Since then the Eagles have had several injuries and setbacks. The championship predictions have cooled off somewhat, but this is still a very talented football team. They've got it all--a franchise quarterback, a star running back, an up-and-coming wide receiver, an outstanding offensive line, and the third best defense in the league in 2008.
The Eagles went 9-6-1 in 2008, and it's a bit of a mystery that they didn't win more. Aside from their lofty defensive ranking, they were ninth on offense, with the sixth best passing attack in the league. But they also started out looking average, winning and losing in equal amounts until they found themselves at 5-5-1. At that point they turned on the jets, and finished 4-1 in their last five games to secure a wild card spot in the playoffs.
This season is one of high expectations in Philadelphia, and the first for them is a win at Bank of America stadium. Vegas agrees--in this game Carolina is one of four home underdogs.
Donovan McNabb easily meets all the criteria for a franchise quarterback. In his 11th year, McNabb has led the Eagles to more wins than any other quarterback in franchise history. He's the NFL's all-time leader in interception percentage, and third in the touchdown/interception ratio category. He's also a threat to run. McNabb is one of only six players in NFL history with over 25,000 yards passing and over 3,000 yards rushing. He holds the Eagles career and single-season marks in touchdown passes, completions, yards, and attempts. He's also been to the pro-bowl five times.
In June McNabb was awarded a 2-year, $24.5 million deal from the Eagles front office. His play down the stretch of the 2008 campaign more than justified these numbers. But, during the middle of the season he was benched for poor play. In the two-game stretch, McNabb was an uncharacteristic 36 of 76 in passing for a meager 398 yards, one touchdown and five interceptions. When his backup proved less than capable in his stead, McNabb was given his starting job back. He demanded an apology for the benching, but never received one.
In the offseason, however, the front office made it up to him in another way. They signed an all-pro offensive tackle to protect his blind side and spent their first three draft picks on the offensive skill positions. More than ever before, McNabb has the weapons around him to put up career numbers.
"Well, for starters every time the Eagles have turned the team over to Donovan McNabb he seems to find a way to stumble just enough to have the fans call for his head. How does a franchise quarterback get benched for poor play anyway? Last year McNabb's vaunted accuracy evaporated in away games, where he averaged an interception per game. Then there's the genius statement about not knowing NFL games can end in a tie? Maybe he should play to win whether he thinks it can tie or not. Starting next week, of course."
"And don't forget the Vick distraction sitting a few yards away on the bench. McNabb will turn in a turkey, because the Philadelphia fan base almost demands it. How else can they gin up a genuine quarterback controversy?"
"Don't be worried about Vick, McNabb certainly won't. And don't get your hopes up for a tie either, it won't be that close. As for giving McNabb the keys to the team--he's had them for ten years now. How else do you explain seven playoff appearances?"
"McNabb has probably had this game circled on his calendar for months, everybody loves looking good in openers and there's no better team than the Panthers to give that to him. He's a west coast offense specialist who is patient enough to slowly march down the field with quick three step drops. The Panthers have no way to defend that, because Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall haven't yet learned that you can't jam your receiver when you line up ten yards off of the line of scrimmage."
For the last few years in Philadelphia, the number one questions fans want to ask about the Eagles is how Westbrook will hold up. This year he's returning to the lineup after undergoing surgery on his both left knee and his right ankle. The ankle caused him to miss two games in 2008. There have been conflicting reports regarding Westbrook's status for the 2009 season. Some say he'll be ready, others say he won't. He did not play in the preseason, although he has been practicing with the team.
If Westbrook can't go, then the Eagles will likely turn to second round draft pick LeSean McCoy. McCoy was a second team All American selection out of Pitt, who broke Larry Fitzgerald's touchdown record for freshmen and sophomores with 36. For the Eagles in the preseason he has rushed 29 times for 97 yards and two touchdowns. He's also caught six passes for 60 yards. He has problems in protection, so if Westbrook is healthy he probably won't see the field much.
"The Panthers may be vulnerable up the middle, but that's not where Westbrook is dangerous. He's a patient runner who exploits the edges and kills you with his hands. And as good as the completely revamped and potentially psychotic Eagles line is, they weren't exactly opening big holes in the preseason. Maybe they were just working on the passing game, but without Westbrook they were the 27th worst rushing team in the league. You really think he makes all the difference?"
"And yes, he's a good rusher. But he's clearly on the decline--his production last year was a career low four yards per carry. Where Westbrook can still hurt teams is in catching balls out of the backfield. In our new defense, that should suit Thomas Davis just fine, he's got the speed and more to track Westbrook and keep him from breaking one. This is all assuming Westbrook plays, of course. If he doesn't, then the rookie is in for a very long introduction to the NFL."
"Against Carolina's vaunted defensive tackles, the offensive line will be able to open holes wide enough for Grady Jackson to run through. A back like Westbrook won't need to catch, and he won't even need to play at full speed to get his yards."
"The Eagles also went out and signed a fullback who knows how to block in the offseason, which just makes things worse. Even if Beason can go, a face full of Leanord Weaver on every play will limit his effectiveness. At least Beason should break free of the block in time to help the other defensive players get Hayden up off his back and brush the cleat marks off his chest."
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
The Philadelphia receiving corps may be one of the fastest and most explosive in the NFL, but the one thing it does lack is size. At 6-4, the tallest receiver on the team is third option Hank Baskett, while the smallest is budding star DeSean Jackson at 5-10. As accuracy has never been McNabb's strong suit, that could be a problem. He will need to get the ball in with some precision if he wants to take advantage of what his smaller receivers can give him.
Kevin Curtis and Jackson will be the starters. Jackson caught 62 balls for 912 yards and two scores as a rookie in 2008. Curtis missed seven contests with a sports hernia, and ended up with just 33 catches for 390 yards. First round pick Jeremy Maclin has the size and skills to develop into a star, but needs time to develop and will probably not be a factor.
A lot of Eagles fans are happy that the team has finally rid itself of pass-dropping specialist L.J. Smith, replacing him with Brent Celek. Celek struggled as a blocker last year but should be improved in that area, and his presence on the field gives McNabb another legitimate option in the passing game. Rookie Cornelius Ingram may make an appearance as well.
"The secondary has been a strong point on the Panthers for a couple of years now. Gamble is bigger than Jackson and Curtis, and has the balance and speed to stay with either and completely shut them down. And even if Jackson does catch a ball or two, you can count on him to do something stupid. This is the showboat who dropped the ball on purpose before hitting the end zone last year."
"The Panthers may give up a few catches, but there won't be any long balls. And if the Eagles get caught in third and long, McNabb will be caught looking by the pressure."
"Come on, word out of Philadelphia is that Jackson and Curtis are fighting over who gets to line up against Chris Gamble first. From the sound of it, each wants to score Philly's first touchdown of the year and they're just playing the odds. And pressure from where? The Panthers are afraid to blitz, and Peppers is to busy counting his money to play football. If you play fantasy football, Curtis and Jackson are both starts this week."
This unit has had a complete shake up from 2008. Center Jamaal Jackson returns in his old spot, but he's the only one. Left Guard Todd Herremans is recovering from surgery on his foot, and will be replaced by Nick Folk, who played very well down the stretch at Right Guard in 2008. At Left Tackle the Eagles signed former all-pro Jason Peters from Buffalo, and on the right side they have the Andrews brothers, Stacy and Shawn. Stacy is pencilled in as the Eagles' new Right Guard while his brother will slide over to the Right Tackle spot.
"This unit is a train wreck. Peters gave up 12 sacks last year, the Andrews Sisters are a pair of headcases, and their guards can't get on the same page as their center. Where do you even begin to describe the problems here? Maybe with the unmotivated Peters, who now has a big check and no reason for making plays. He was whistled for 8 penalties last year, and has a real lazy streak. Or Shawn Andrews, who isn't afraid of Peppers because he think he's a beast? If he can get off his antidepressants he might make a play, but between Brown and Peppers he'll have to double his dose on Monday. Maybe Stacy Andrews can improve on the 9.5 sacks he surrendered in 2008. Forget these guys playing together, they need to work out their individual problems before they can work as a group."
"The Eagles offense is scary on paper, but when you see these clowns try and play together they become kind of sad to watch. Unless you're a Panthers fan."
"To prepare for this game Philadelphia watched game film on the Panthers, and have a new strategy. Wherever Peppers lines up, they'll substitute in their second string tackle. The tape has proved that this is how you make Peppers disappear from the game. And to prepare for the interior pressure the Philadelphia coaches replaced their blocking sleds with down pillows in practice, and they plan to continue the generic opponents' strategy of getting rid of the ball JUST before Brayton gets there."
"Seriously, against the Panthers defense how good does an offensive line have to be? This game will be a big confidence booster for the Eagles unit."
Any talk about the Philadelphia defense needs to begin with a nod to the late Jim Johnson. Johnson's death was not just a loss for the Eagles, the entire league mourns his passing. Johnson was a defensive genius who had a knack for calling just the right blitz at just the right time. Even though his position now belongs to long-time understudy Sean McDermott, you can't replace a legend that easily.
The Eagles play a 4-3, and their front four is a good one. There aren't any big stars, but like the Giants, Philadelphia has a deep and talented rotation that allows them to apply constant pressure. On the right side defensive ends Darren Howard and Trent Cole got ten and nine sacks in 2008, respectively. On the opposite side Juqua Parker and Victor Abiamiri had five and two. As a whole, the Eagles had 48 sacks in 2008. That's a lot of pressure, and it starts up front.
In the middle Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson are more than capable at containing the run and collapsing the pocket, and on obvious passing downs Howard moves inside to generate even more pressure.
"Last year Carolina went to New York and ran the ball at will, racking up 158 yards on 4.5 yards per carry. There's no reason to think they can't do that against the Eagles, who have a similar line with less talent. Carolina will be at home too, where Williams and Stewart averaged 5.5 yards per carry and 169 yards per game. That's with the same offensive line they have now, although it's healthier and it has another year's worth of experience."
"When the Panthers go down by two touchdowns early, they'll have to start passing anyway. Then how much pressure will the defensive line have to bring to coax an interception or two out of Delhomme? And where are all these holes in the running game going to magically open against fresh and talented players? Not on the right side, where Vincent will be dizzy from spinning like a top in pass protection. On the left? Even if Williams breaks through the hole he'll be met by the speed of the Philadelphia linebackers."
"The Giants showed in preseason what a fast rush does to the Panthers--it exposes them as a complacent group that keeps pointing to a 12-4 record against scrub teams as evidence that it can play with the big boys. It can't."
Last June the linebackers looked like they might be a strength going into 2009. Then their starting MLB, Stewart Bradley, was lost for the year to injury. Initial plans are to replace him with Omar Gaither. Eagles fans hope that Gaither plays better in the middle than he did on the weak side, where he started 2008 before losing his job to Akeem Jordan. Jordan returns as a starter, and on the strong side Chris Gocong rounds out the unit. With Bradley this group looked pretty strong, with quality depth in Gaither and Joe Mays. Now Mays may miss the game as well, and the unit as a whole has become a question mark for the Eagles.
"This is why Williams and Stewart will have big days, because the linebackers don't have the talent to stay with them. Philly is weak and thin at the Linebacker position, and no longer have a master playcaller scripting around their deficiencies. Look for Barnidge to also have a big day catching passes in the flat as Gocong bites on the play-action over and over. Look for Gaither to try and tackle without getting his uniform dirty. The Panthers are going to have a big time exploiting the middle."
"Look at the stats again--the Eagles were 4th in points allowed, third in yards surrendered, 4th against the rush, 3rd against the pass, and third overall in defense. Johnson was a big part of that, but at some point you have to give the players some credit. And sure their linebackers are inexperienced without Bradley, but they have a ton of talent and when the front four is as good as Philly's is, that covers up a lot of mistakes."
"Dream on if you think the Panthers will even get to the secondary on the ground, and Delhomme won't have time to stop staring down Smith and find a tight end before he's smothered by the ends anyway."
Last year the Eagles notched up 15 interceptions, including two that went back for touchdowns. That was a different defense than the one which will line up for Philadelphia in 2009. Lito Sheppard is now in New York and Brian Dawkins, AKA Weapon X, has gone to Denver, leaving a huge void in the secondary. Sheppard had already lost his starting job to Asante Samuel, but someone needs to replace Dawkins' leadership, and that's going to be a tall order.
They still have two good cornerbacks in Samuel and Sheldon Brown. Samuel was a very solid addition in 2008, leading the team with four picks, but he wasn't their best. That title belongs to Brown, who didn't surrender a single touchdown until the NFC Championship Game. The Eagles liked their experience with Samuel so much that they went back to where they got him, the Patriots, for another cornerback, Ellis Hobbs. Hobbs will compete with Joselio Hanson for the nickel back position.
The loss of Dawkins at strong safety will be huge emotional blow; his on the field leadership will be sorely missed. Quintin Mikell serves as the Eagles only true safety, and will be counted on to replace Dawkins this year at the Strong Safety position. Rounding out the secondary was going to be second year man Quintin Demps. The Eagles decided that starting two Quintins would be a little much for announcing crews around the league, and rookie Victor 'Macho' Harris beat him out anyway. So Harris gets the nod, but it should be noted that he's a converted cornerback, making much the same transition that Charles Godfrey did for the Panthers last year.
"Without Dawkins this group has gone from a strength to a problem. Brown is more worried about his contract than his play, and he'll probably follow Sheppard's example and leave Philadelphia at the end of the season. He says he'll go out and play like everything is ok, but everyone knows it's not. Add in the distraction of Hobb's mouth and the lack of coverage at the safety spot and you have a secondary that Smitty is just aching to take apart."
"15 interceptions don't happen by accident. And we're sending Jake Delhomme out there to challenge them? What could possibly go wrong?"
"This is a good day to just settle for a bunch of 3-and-outs on the ground. At least we can give them a long field that way."
"Oh, and if you're a Philly fan? After the game, don't go out and talk about how Macho Harris is the next Ed Reed. He's not--Delhomme just made him look that way."
"People like to say the Panthers are a mess, especially on defense, but the Eagles are even worse. They've lost their two best leaders and the architect of their defense. The Panthers upgraded at DC, promoted their nickel to the starter (where he should have been last year), and replaced a fat man in the middle with someone who doesn't have to stop and absorb the momentum shift every time he wants to change direction."
"This defense is designed to stop teams like Philadelphia. The Eagles can try to dink and dunk down the field but all that will buy them is a bunch of 4th and shorts. Westbrook and Jackson may break a couple but with the zone coverage there will be someone who can limit the damage. And there are always the stats to look at. In the McNabb era, the Eagles are 8-8 on the road in September, 2-5 in the last four years, and 1-4 in their last five opening games on the road."
"Last year a more talented Eagles squad struggled to go 9-6-1, and the teams they beat included powerhouses like St. Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, Cleveland, and Cincinnatti. Oops, they just tied Cincinnatti, in part because their franchise quarterback didn't think he needed to play hard because NFL games can't end in ties."
"And don't think the Panther defense is going to be the same one seen in the preseason. This group is made up of veteran players who know when to turn it up and when to make sure they don't get hurt. Harris will be bringing the wood, Gamble won't be nearly so soft, and Peppers will be ready to show Peters how they play in the NFC. The Eagles may have a couple of good drives, but the Panthers will bring a surprising amount of pressure on McNabb and the Eagles won't look nearly as good as people think."
"When the Panthers have the ball, it's going to be run, run, run. Bunkley and Patterson are good, but the Panthers running backs are better. They proved that time and again last year, and with the veteran offensive line they run behind they'll prove it again Sunday. Williams will get over 100 yards easy, and Stewart or Goodson will come close. People forget how well our line blocks in the running game, this will be a welcome reminder."
"And as far as Jake is concerned, don't worry. When the running game works, so does he. Smitty will get a couple, Moose will get a couple, and Delhomme will manage the game effectively to a home win. This should be a nice confidence builder for the Panthers."
"Panthers 27, Eagles 20"
"People like to say the Panthers are a mess because they are, especially on defense. The starters couldn't stop Baltimore's passing game, how are they going to do against one of the NFL's best? Particularly when it's healthy--the Eagles did pretty good last year considering the injuries they had at wide receiver. They won't need to resort to any trickery to move the ball."
"Last year the Carolina defense folded down the stretch, exposed as a very soft-in-the-middle group who couldn't pressure the quarterback. Now they've lost their only run stopper in the preseason. The only improvement they made was drafting a third and long pass rushing specialist, which would be fine if they could get get their opponent into that situation. They also lost their defensive coordinator and most of his staff. They weren't hired away, they left. What does that say about the Panther locker room?"
"McNabb will press the ball through the air, patiently moving down the field on the Panthers. Westbrook will get just enough carries to keep the linebackers honest. The good news is that the Panthers won't have to worry too much about punt returns, as the Eagles will probably score on most of their possessions. As far as pressure, the Panthers don't have it. They didn't show it in the preseason and the only thing that McNabb needs to remember is how to step up in the pocket. He'll have all day to throw."
"When the Panthers have the ball Samuel and Sheppard will beg McDermott to stack the box. The Eagles will make Jake beat them through the air, and given the pressure their front four can generate, the Panthers will implode after he throws his third interception. At least there won't be a quarterback controversy in Charlotte after the game. Instead, it will be painfully obvious to everyone that Delhomme is done and 2009 is going to be a rebuilding year."
"Panthers 10, Eagles 35"